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The Chemistry of Praise

According to research by Gallup, employees tend to receive very little praise from their supervisors. In fact, less than a third of U.S. workers would strongly agree that a boss has praised their work in the past week. Why are leaders so stingy with the compliments? One excuse I frequently hear from managers is that recognizing employees for doing a good job is an ongoing burden.

In other words, once you start praising people, they expect you to praise them again and again.

Well, there is some truth to that assertion. As it happens, our brains produce a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Dopamine is a chemical that stimulates the part of the brain that processes rewards and creates feelings of pride, satisfaction, and happiness. Receiving positive recognition for our efforts releases dopamine in our brains and makes us feel good about ourselves.

While employees might not understand the chemistry of dopamine, they learn to associate praise with pleasure. In turn, they correlate pleasure with hard work. As a result, they do additional good work in hopes of receiving more praise.

But the benefits of dopamine are short-lived. As the effects wear off, we need another dose to maintain the upbeat feelings. Otherwise, we come down from the dopamine high and feel frustrated and unappreciated. And that's why employees continuously need praise.

Our craving for dopamine is biological, so our pursuit of it is natural. That knowledge can change the perceived burden of praising your employees into a simple recipe for increasing productivity.

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